Liberal Catholicism: Requiescat in Pace

With the dust settling on the uproar which followed the Vatican’s April intervention into the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), it’s possible to put this and other emerging trends into a longer-term perspective. The blustering reaction of the LCWR and supporters such as the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof (whose grasp of rudimentary Catholic teaching is, well, rudimentary) confirms what’s been apparent for some time: that it’s almost “game-over” for self-identified liberal or dissenting Catholics. (More detail on the LCWR can be found in this recent Crisis article.)

The demographic evidence for impending extinction is striking. The average age of members of female religious orders that are moving “beyond Jesus” into an alternative spiritual universe is over 70. This contrasts with those orders who joyfully embrace Catholic faith in all its fullness. They’re positively flourishing. Similarly, it’s very hard to find dissenters among seminarians – also growing in numbers – and priests below 50.

The dissenters’ replication challenge, however, goes beyond the clergy. It also affects laypeople. Many self-described liberal Catholics have either raised their children to think and act more-or-less like liberal Protestants (another fast-disappearing species), or they’ve decided their children should be “free to make up their own minds” about religious matters.

Of course, the latter position isn’t as neutral as it sounds. As the philosopher J. Budziszewski writes, “declining to teach [the faith] is itself a way of teaching.” Among other things, he adds, it tells children that what their parents think about God is unimportant, and that reflecting adequately about God requires no theological or philosophical formation. Hence, no-one should be surprised that many who grow up in such families end up knowing or caring little about Catholicism.

 

A second symptom of liberal Catholicism’s internal crisis is the increasingly strange character of the positions advocated by prominent dissenters. You see this in their frantic efforts to absolutize subjects that are mostly prudential (such as economic policy) for Catholics, while clumsily attempting to relativize those truly non-negotiable matters. Hence they end up hurling anathemas at Congressman Paul Ryan while simultaneously supporting entities such as “Catholics for Sebelius.”

But perhaps the biggest factor driving dissenting Catholicism’s perceptible crack-up is its embrace of an error excoriated by Blessed John Henry Newman in his 1879 biglietto speech. Describing it as the “great apostasia,” Newman defined “the spirit of liberalism in religion” in the following terms:

“Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another. . . . [it holds that] Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous; and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy.”

Needless to say, you won’t find such notions contained in any document promulgated at Vatican II. But close inspection soon indicates they lurk just beneath the surface of many dissenters’ writings. Whether it’s biblical exegesis, moral theology, or ecclesiology, their doubts about Catholicism’s truth-claims are manifest. Revelation and reason are out. Skepticism and feelings are in.

Unfortunately for dissenters, embracing “liberalism in religion” has rendered them largely impotent when it comes to doing what dissenting Catholics invariably claim to value – engaging modernity. For given their palpable unease with Catholicism’s unique truth-claims (which, by definition, can’t be whatever you want them to be), many dissenters are reduced to affirming various social and political causes as “anonymously Christian” developments. 

So what are some likely results of dissenting Catholicism’s accelerating meltdown?

One is that Catholics in the West will increasingly fall into one of two categories. They will either be (1) quite orthodox on matters of faith and morals and trying, despite sin, to live the Church’s teaching; or (2) more-or-less totally detached from the Church, living lives indistinguishable from secularists. Slowly but surely, the mushy-middle is emptying out.

Another development will be what’s already obvious to many in Europe and North America: the on-going emergence of a clergy happy to articulate Catholicism’s specific truth-claims and who do so in an intelligent, joyful way. It’s partly a self-selective process. There’s no conceivable reason why anyone in the West today would become a priest or religious unless they truly believed the Church’s teaching and wanted to invite others to see its truth.

Yet another, less fortunate trend will be the relentless secularization of many nominally Catholic universities and hospitals as their token links with the Church continue to fray and weaken. And that will render irrelevant the power to which many dissenters cling in these Catholic institutions for the simple reason that no-one will regard such organizations as Catholic in any meaningful way. 

But here’s the good news. If Church history teaches us anything, it’s that periods of decline in the Church’s life are often followed by phases of renewal. The corruption, scandals and heresies (sound familiar?) which sparked the Reformation were followed by the evangelical energies unleashed by the Council of Trent and Counter-Reformation that took Christ’s message literally to the ends of the earth. Likewise, the Church’s abasement at the hands of philosophes, Jansenists, Febronists, absolutist monarchs, and French revolutionaries during the eighteenth century was followed by nineteenth-century Catholicism’s profound spiritual revival, a rejuvenation which produced giants such as Thérèse of Lisieux, a saint and doctor of the Church.

That the Church needs a similar revitalization is obvious, not least because when dissenting Catholics say the Church needs to engage the modern world, they’re absolutely right. There’s no going back to an idealized pre-1960s past which, on closer examination, often turns out to be less-wonderful than hitherto assumed.

To evangelize modernity, however, means Catholics not only need to understand but also critique it and convert it to the fullness of the truth of which the modern world is but a pale shadow. Fortunately, in the teachings of Vatican II, Paul VI, Blessed John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, we have a road-map for precisely such an engagement: a path obscured for decades by the dissenting generation’s equivocations and hang-ups. Embracing this way of proceeding is crucial, especially if the Church is to reach those nominal Catholics who are in many ways the victims of three generations of non-catechesis in the faith.

In the meantime, watch for escalating incoherence from dissenting Catholics as they fade from the scene. Judging from the “beyond Jesus” nuns’ reaction to some simple home-truths about just how far they have wandered from the Catholic faith, it won’t be pretty. But that’s all the more reason to pray for them. For no matter how great our intellectual and moral errors, the Truth can set anyone free. 

Samuel Gregg

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Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored many books including, most recently, For God and Profit: How Banking and Finance Can Serve the Common Good (2016).

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